OXFORD — A group of Oxford Elementary School fourth-grade students are asking for more gym.
And they have gone to the top of the school’s totem pole to plead their case.
In letters to the SAD 17 Board of Directors, a handful of Oxford Elementary fourth-grade students told the directors that they have gone as long as five weeks in a row without gym this school year because other activities such as field trips and holidays.
Gym is normally scheduled for a weekly one-hour gym session with gym teacher Emily Ellis. Oxford and other elementary schools in the SAD 17 school district receive 40 minutes per week.
Ellis suggested the students write a “persuasive letter” to the directors because she has heard the same complaint for the past 18 years.
In their letters, students told the directors that physical education is “fun and healthy,” “gets us active,” and “Mrs. Ellis inspires us,” among other reasons why one hour a week or less is not enough.
“Your body needs exercise. It’s good for your heart and it’s good for your bones,” said Georgia Wright, a 9-year-old fourth-grade student, as she participated in a recent gym class at Oxford Elementary School.
Jean Zimmerman, health education and physical education consultant for the Maine Department of Education, told the Advertiser Democrat that Maine does not have a set time requirement for any of the eight required content areas, which include academics and physical education.
Maine based the development of its physical education standards on the national standards created by the National Association of Sport and Physical Education, but implementation is a local decision.
Zimmerman said national recommendations for physical education are 150 minutes per week for elementary school students, 225 minutes per week for middle and high school students during the school year.
“Maine is a local control state so school districts set their own schedules,” Zimmerman said. “At the same time, state law requires students must demonstrate proficiency in all eight content areas to meet graduation requirements. The foundational information students receive in elementary and middle school is essential for this process.”
While state standards promote physical education on a regular basis because of its benefits, including “its contribution to academic success and a healthy lifestyle,” funding is the problem.
Speaking on behalf of the SAD 17 Board of Directors, Superintendent Rick Colpitts addressed the student’s concerns recently in a a letter that said in part: “Providing more gym classes at our elementary schools is a long-term goal for the Board and is identified as a priority in its five-year strategic plan.”
It is one of many goals, such as class size reduction, expanded music and art programming, improved school fleet, that the board hopes to fund over the next several years.
“All these things cost money and there is not enough of that available to get everything done we want to see improved,” Colpitts said.
Colpitts suggested that students be patient and, meanwhile, try to live a healthier lifestyle by getting outside more often and playing, taking walks with family and friends, participating in community sports programs and eating healthy foods.
“Keep moving! We all make choices that impact our health I encourage you to make good choices on your own,” he told the students.
Ellis said she is aware of the funding issues but is concerned that schools aren’t doing enough to teach young students good habits for a healthy, active lifestyle that may help avoid health issues later on in life.
“Elementary school is a great place to start … not to mention the fact that these bodies are made to move, children simply are not designed to sit for long periods of time,” Ellis said.
Gym not like it used to be
Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School students have physical education every other day with a wide variety of lifetime fitness opportunities ranging from competitive sports to rollerblading, golf and mountain biking. Oxford Hills Middle School students have physical education every day or every other day, depending on the rotation schedule.
At the elementary school level, Ellis said she concentrates on helping elementary students make healthy lifestyle habits during the one hour a week allotted to physical education.
“Sweat and Smiles. That’s my motto for every class,” she said. The students first engage in a warm up exercise to get the heart rate up, students may then go to various exercise stations and then to a skill, such as throwing, lifting weights and dribbling. At the end of the class, the students participate a game or activity, usually in small groups, using the skills they learned during the class.
“We talk about why we do things and why is it important to get our heart rates up,” she said.
Making sure the children move, strengthening their heart rate and enjoying the class are key, she said.
“When I hear, ‘This is better than video games!’ I know that we’ve been successful,” Ellis said.
While the face of physical education is much different than decades ago, the emphasis is still the same – to get kids moving.
According to information available from various sources on the web, the Round Hill School, a private school established in 1823 in Northampton, Mass., was the first to include physical education as an integral part of the curriculum. Physical education was not offered in the public schools until 1855, when Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first city school system to offer this type of program to children.
In 1866, California became the first state to pass a law requiring twice-per-day exercise periods in public schools.
During the early 1920s, many states passed legislation requiring physical education.
Throughout the early 20th century, into the 1950s, when physical education shifted from games and sports to physical conditioning, there was a steady growth of physical education in the public schools.
It was about that time that the President’s Council on Physical Fitness was established to help combat the falling fitness levels of America’s youth.
In 1962, media attention focused on a California high school that developed an intense physical conditioning program that inspired President John F. Kennedy to call on all students to get involved in the program. More than 4,000 schools signed on.
But during later decades, physical education requirements dwindled as childhood obesity rates expanded, according to information from the Center for Disease Control.
“Our bodies need exercise,” said fourth-grade student Carter Currier during a recent gym class at Oxford Elementary School.
Georgia Wright, a 9-year-old fourth-grade student, agreed saying, “Your body needs exercise. It’s good for your heart and it’s good for your bones.,”
Ellis was adamant about her feelings.
“Students need more physical education. Period.”